As USA's Covert Affairs prepares for its second season next week (June 7), Universal Studios Home Entertainment has released season one onto DVD in an eleven-episode, three-disc set. Here's my review.
Someone once described Covert Affairs to me as "Alias lite." And it does remind me of Alias, before things like time jumps and secret half-siblings. That's not a good thing, though, as I didn't like Alias. So, too, must I admit that I don't care for Covert Affairs. It's the first USA show that I'd qualify as an outright miss.
The premise of the show is thus: would-be spy Annie Walker (Coyote Ugly's Piper Perabo) is plucked from her training and thrown into active duty. She's got the help of her colleague Auggie Anderson (the terribly underappreciated Christopher Gorham, who will always be Dr. Miles McCabe from Medical Investigation to me), and works under the watchful eye of veteran spies Joan and Arthur Campbell (Leverage's Kari Matchett and The O.C.'s Peter Gallagher). The required sexual tension comes in the form of Jai (Heroes star Sendhil Ramamurthy), whom Arthur has ordered to gain Annie's trust. There's also the one person who's not in the know - in this case, Annie's sister Danielle (House's Anne Dudek).
And there's just something way too cute about all of it.
Covert Affairs never really rings true to me; it feels like TV's interpretation of what a female-centered spy show should be, rather than a serious go at the idea. I don't buy Perabo as someone who'd be a CIA recruit, let alone someone to be taken seriously as an agent in the field, regardless of her character's sudden promotion. Many of the other actors have done better work elsewhere. The best of the bunch is Gorham; no matter what his role on a show he finds something to do with it, and this is no exception. If anything, the challenge of playing a blind yet talented agent should raise his profile. Blind but not any less talented (or written as such), his character is the most unique and as a result, the character that stands out.
My bigger issues are with the writing. I'm not sure when or how this happened, but the phrase "girl power" on TV has come to place style over substance - and Covert Affairs is an example of that. Mixing cute with butt-kicking does not a strong female character make, or a TV show for that matter. To borrow a phrase from another colleague, the show takes "candy coated fun to saccharine levels." I would be fine with this if Covert Affairs presented itself as purely fun, but it wants us to take its drama seriously, and I just can't do that. And there's the separate matter of the inclusion of an overall mythology involving Annie's ex-boyfriend and what the CIA wants with him. Particularly amongst USA shows, it seems every series has to have some sort of ongoing subplot...and it's not always necessary. This is one of those shows that could have gotten on without it.
Admittedly, I have higher standards than most for my spy shows, given my own background, but in my book, Covert Affairs just doesn't make the grade.
This DVD release is pretty much like that for Royal Pains: Season 2, which was available on the same day. You get one cardboard slipcover (using season one's promo artwork for the front of the box), with three plastic cases each including one disc. There's no booklet, but the episode and special feature information is included on the back of each case. Unsurprisingly, I have the same nitpick about this set that I did about the Royal Pains set: while at least this set has packaging that tells you which episodes the commentaries are on, it still doesn't tell you who's on them - you'll have to access the commentary option through the special features menu to find out. (Like Royal Pains it's generally the same group of people on all the tracks so once you've done this the first time, you don't need to do it again.)
The menus are easy to navigate and there are no forced trailers. There's a "play all" option but no scene selection. Video is 1:78:1 widescreen, and I'd say it's comparable to watching the show on USA HD when it aired. This is a good transfer, and fans should feel comfortable deleting their DVR recordings.
I'm disappointed to report that like Royal Pains, Covert Affairs only supports English. There's an English Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 audio track and English SDH subtitles, but no other languages, and again not all bonus features are subtitled. The set gains back some brownie points, however, for the considerate inclusion of Descriptive Video Service (DVS), which is a descriptive narration for blind viewers. That's a really nice touch...at the same time it unintentionally highlights the shortcomings of the subtitles.
The Special Features
A decent selection of special features here; not outstanding, but better than some sets. I appreciate how the studio gave us some great material to go with the character of Auggie - not just an interesting featurette about how it works within the show, but a PSA as well. Here's what's on the set.
Deleted Scenes: The usual assortment of snippets that didn't make broadcast.
Gag Reel: Who doesn't love to see other people screw up? This one is funnier than the one for Royal Pains in my opinion.
Commentaries: There are three - on "Pilot," "Communication Breakdown" and "When The Levee Breaks." It's a mix of cast and crew; you'll hear Perabo and Gorham as well as producers and the show's creators. As Perabo and Gorham are really the heart of the show, I don't mind the absence of the other actors as much as I would with other series. Not the best commentary I've ever heard but worth a listen.
Featurettes: "Welcome To The Farm" is your standard making-of. Much more interesting (to me, anyway) is "Blind Insight," which is a little piece where Gorham and Perabo discuss the character of Auggie and how his blindness plays into the show. I wish this would have been longer, because it did pique my interest.
The Bottom Line
Covert Affairs: Season One is an average DVD set for a below-average series, and at $35.99 (as of this writing), it's a bit pricier than some box sets out there. While fans of the show will enjoy a decent selection of special features, I honestly can't recommend this as a blind buy. If you really want to know about being a CIA trainee, pick up the book Class 11 by T.J. Waters; it's one man's real story that's much more entertaining.
Purchase Covert Affairs: Season One at Amazon.